Thanks to the continued popularity of superhero movies and YA literature adaptations and now the reignited interest in monsters, the joined genres of science fiction and fantasy are giving us what seems to be more releases than ever. It helps that computer effects are cheaper and easier for the benefit of indies and that so many makers of shorts see simple yet impressively visualized stories involving robots, dystopias and alien invasions as the perfect calling card for Hollywood.
The plethora of works dealing with the unreal and as yet impossible means that while last year a Hobbit movie made the cut, this year the final chapter did not. It means that a new sci-fi film from Terry Gilliam, my longtime favorite director, also fell below our limit of the top 14. And it also means there was just too much out there for me to get around to. Apologies to Space Station 76, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, The Boxtrolls, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Frame and many others.
Some interesting trends to note about the year in sci-fi and fantasy before we get going: at least a few 2014 movies involve doppelgängers or doubles or clones or alternate versions of some sort; another bunch feature a plot similar to Groundhog Day; and a lot were not mere magic and space opera but rather emphasized the science side of sci-fi by at least promoting scientists and innovation (if not also always getting the tech or theories quite right). Also Scarlett Johansson.
The most bat-shit insane movie of the year is also the most awesomely ridiculous satire of pretty much everything that qualifies for this list. Directed by Luc Besson and stated by him to be a mix of his own Leon (The Professional) and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s far crazier than that sounds. That the premise stems from an idea that isn’t even true – the myth that humans only utilize 10% of our brains – isn’t all that far an exaggeration or mistake compared to a majority of sci-fi movies. Lucy, which stars Johansson as a woman who accidentally narcotically becomes the first person to use her whole brain power, would be just another superhero movie if it were based on a comic book, but instead it’s a goofy yet spectacularly fun take on psychic powers, time travel and the singularity. If it actually took itself seriously, it might have been more like Transcendence, a well-intentioned failure I at least give an honorable mention to down below.
13. The One I Love
Even including this on a list of sci-fi and fantasy movies is probably too much of a spoiler, so let me just skip to the main reason it’s on a best-of list of any kind, never mind this one: Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are a delightful pair, playing a couple attempting to save their marriage. And they’re terrific enough to make the strangeness of the story not seem too strange to buy into it. The writer/director team of Justin Lader and Charlie McDowell is one I’m really looking forward to seeing more from.
12. Big Hero 6
Walt Disney Studios
Disney’s loose adaptation of the eponymous Marvel comic has more heart than brains, which isn’t typically the case for a genre associated with more cerebral than emotional stories, but it’s more cute cartoon than straight sci-fi. You’ve gotta love its excitement about science, though, particularly robotics. And it not only makes becoming a scientist seem as cool as becoming an actual superhero, it also works with tech related to stuff actually being produced in the real-world, namely miniature robot swarms and soft robotics. Those in the movie are much more advanced and cinematic, of course, allowing for one of the most lovable machines ever given life in a movie: Baymax.
Another movie that can’t be described too much without spoiling the immediate twist of the premise, this feature directorial debut of James Ward Byrkit is the kind that passes very easily through word of mouth because it’s a mind-bending thriller with a lot of secrecy involved. I watched it, for instance, because it was suggested without detail by my brother. And I went in blind. Like a lot of these kinds of films, it’s far from perfect and might not even make logical sense, but it’s still fun trying to work it all out as it goes along. Just don’t expect Shane Carruth-level brilliance here and you should enjoy it.
10. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
In some ways, this sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes is better, stronger; in some ways, it’s the lesser of the two – or maybe it just didn’t leave me with quite as much awe as the predecessor (I currently have more vivid recollection of Rise). One of the things that I find fascinating about it is that the ape characters are now so exceptionally done and therefore so acceptable that it’s easy to forget what an achievement the whole thing is. Andy Serkis and the rest of the performance-capture cast may be more taken for granted than ever. I lost myself in the Shakespearean drama of real-looking simians at war with humans and amongst themselves, hardly considering that this is even a tale of science fiction.
Legendary Pictures Productions LLC & Warner Bros Entertainment Inc.
A lot of people complained that it takes too long for the title monster to be seen fully in this remake/reboot of the classic Japanese monster movie. But director Gareth Edwards is influenced by people like Steven Spielberg (enough to lift main characters’ names) and similarly keeps his goods obscured until the climax. We’re too used to seeing creatures quickly, continually and fully without any mystery, in order to get our money’s worth on the special effects magic. Godzilla is more like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Alien. Without as good a script, however. What’s on paper here isn’t important, though, and Edwards is a master visual storyteller, making up for every weakness in plot and dialogue with every shot.
I love and hate Christopher Nolan’s latest, and I know I’m not alone. Its third act is bonkers and loses a lot of the weight that the rest of the movie has been putting on in terms of scientific authenticity. And there are as many questions to ask of the character development as there are regarding whether or not relativity and black holes are properly employed and depicted. But it sure is the most captivating kind of sci-fi when it’s at its best, mainly through its second act when the space travel section begins and we meet the other most memorable movie robot of the year and become tense with wonder at the universe presented before us. Even the visuals during some of the worse parts are still astonishing. And the movie features the best score of the year (never mind if it’s not anywhere on Allison’s ranked list).
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
There’s nothing prominently sci-fi or fantasy about this superhero sequel – if you don’t think about Captain America’s (Chris Evans) heightened strength and agility or how he and his title-sharing nemesis have been preserved since the 1940s or that there are giant flying aircraft carriers and a mad scientist (Toby Jones) now existing solely as a computer and another hero with mechanical wings that give him the power of flight or masks that allow Black Widow (Johansson again) to perfectly impersonate another woman (Jenny Agutter) or a few other things. The Marvel movie mainly deals in government conspiracy themes, the sort that are hardly fiction, let alone science fiction right now. It relates more to a documentary like Citizenfour than it does any of the other 13 movies on this list, including one in the same mega-franchise.
6. The Lego Movie
A surprising delight, this hyperactive and hilarious animated feature is the most imaginative dystopian sci-fi since The Matrix. And it made it so we can no longer be cynical about every toy or brand that Hollywood aims to adapt into a movie. The ending, while clever, loses a bit of its edge and tempo, but overall this is a work that exists as a perfect reflection of its own wonderful ensemble of heroes and pop culture references. It’s subversive and silly and satirical and splendid. Almost everything about it is indeed awesome.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
Walt Disney Studios
Another movie starring Chris Pratt (this time on screen) that could have been a total disaster yet also shockingly became one of the most popular releases of the year. Who, even those familiar with the comic book characters, expected Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) to be the breakout iconic that he became? Who could have imagined that this would be the solution to Marvel’s interconnectivity problem, so much that it’s going to spawn an even less-MCU-informed sequel and then probably a franchise of its own? Only those who actually saw the thing and realized how much more fun it’s having than almost every other blockbuster being made today. Sometimes its like a brand new Star Wars and sometimes it’s more like Spaceballs, the Star Wars spoof, but it also has an identity all its own with its soundtrack, its ensemble of ragtag intergalactic heroes and its pop culture references that work and will continue to work as we enjoy this movie for years to come.
4. Edge of Tomorrow
I’m never surprised that a Tom Cruise movie is good or at least entertaining. He’s still one of our most dependable movie stars. This adaptation of the Japanese YA novel (aka “light novel” over there) “All You Need is Kill” is plenty derivative on the surface – Groundhog Day meets Saving Private Ryan meets Independence Day – but underneath is the most thrilling sci-fi actioner of 2014, filled with great special effects, humor and character, the last of which is strong enough to deserve its eventual emotional beats. Most of all, though, it has Emily Blunt kicking ass and holding her own against Cruise in a way that should, but likely won’t, make her as big a movie star – and action hero – as he is.
3. Only Lovers Left Alive
Sony Pictures Classics
Even the vampire movies were celebrating scientists this year, at least via Tom Hiddleston’s undead rocker in this amusing feature by Jim Jarmusch. The actor plays opposite Tilda Swinton as married vampires named Adam and Eve (maybe the Adam and Eve?). They usually live apart, he residing in a metaphorical Detroit and she in Tangier palling around with the also undead Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), but then she goes to visit and they’re also reunited with her wild little “sister,” played by Mia Wasikowska (but who I kept thinking was Juno Temple). There’s little to it in a narrative sense, as is typical of Jarmusch, but there’s a lot going on in the bigger picture as the characters wish that humans would literally get off their lawn and lament about the self-destructive nature of humanity and what it means for the survival of their kind. The movie is sometimes too on the nose, but it’s still thoroughly delicious.
2. The Double
I’ve had people claim to me that this isn’t a sci-fi movie. Maybe it’s a fantasy film, then? It’s definitely not something that takes place in the real world that we know, so it has to be one of the two or both. Is Brazil not sci-fi or fantasy? That said, there’s a lot of irony to what is and isn’t of the real, such as how Jesse Eisenberg’s meek protagonist, Simon, meets his exact physical double, and there’s nothing fantastical about it, and how the “sci-fi” TV programs of their world are set in a more natural-looking universe. Written and directed by Richard Ayoade based on the Dostoyevsky novella, it’s dark and very funny and Eisenberg gives the most underrated performance(s) of the past 16 months (it debuted at TIFF ‘13). Wasikowska is also in this, very different than her character in Only Lovers Left Alive. If we consider the two performances in their contrasting brilliance, the way we do with Eisenberg’s two roles in The Double, she’s also one of the most underrated talents of the year.
1. Under the Skin
The one movie of 2014 that is most unlike anything I’d ever seen before, Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited third feature is a haunting, mesmerizing mix of minimalist sci-fi horror and raw, natural, candid-camera documentary. Yeah, it shouldn’t be surprising that my pick for the best sci-fi/fantasy movie of the year involves nonfiction elements. But it’s not the only one (Lucy has a montage of footage from Baraka and Samsara while Interstellar appropriates material from Ken Burns’s The Dust Bowl), and anyway I’m more so a champion of the sci-fi stuff, in which Johansson (again) plays an alien luring men to their death in an unforgettable and somewhat indescribable setting. The cinematography by Daniel Landin provides us a ton of other stunning images, too, with the elements coming together in the end for the most violently beautiful visuals of the year.
Honorable Mentions: The first half of Transcendence, Tilda Swinton’s scenes in Snowpiercer, the production design in Zero Theorem, Robin Wright and the ambitious, imaginative animation in The Congress, T.J. Miller’s brief comic relief in Transformers: Age of Extinction.